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Chinese 101: Auxiliary Nouns

Manzai June 20, 2011 User blog:Manzai

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Here's the next Chinese 101 post. It introduces Auxiliary Nouns, and important part of the Chinese language, and one we don't really have an equivalent to in English.

Vocabulary

zhè, zhèi-

This, these

That, those

něi-

Which

shéi

Who

shéi de

Whose

shèmme

What

Big

dà xué

College, university

lǎo

Old (in the sense of age and in the sense of being longstanding)

lǎoshī

Teacher

zhuōzi

Table, desk

zhāng

Auxiliary noun for flat things

yǐzi

Chair

Auxiliary noun for things with handles and chairs

.ne

Particle indicating a follow-up question

gǒu

Dog

zhī

Auxiliary noun for animals and one of a pair of things

hǎo

Good

suírán

Although

hái

Still

dànshi

But

ge

General auxiliary noun (used for people)



Grammar

Auxiliary Nouns: This is an area that a lot of English speakers find to be the most unfamiliar. These are also sometimes called “measure words.” They are used to measure the nouns they precede, sort of in the way we say “one gallon of milk,” or “three miles of road,” in English. In Mandarin, you cannot just say “one book” or “two students”—you have to put the auxiliary noun (AN) before the noun. Many nouns correspond to specific ANs, (again, kind of like how you can’t say “a mile of milk” or “a gallon of road”). ANs aren’t used every time the noun is used though. The most common uses of ANs are when numbering something or when using a noun with a determinative (see #2). When Chinese children are first learning the language, they often use ge for every AN, because it pairs with more nouns than any other AN.

Determinatives: Determinatives are a class of words including zhè, nà, něi, as well as number words. When a determinative comes before a noun, you have to put an AN between them, as in nà zhāng zhuōzi, “That desk.” You can also use a non-numeric determinative followed by a numerical one, like Něi sì bǎ yǐzi, “Which four chairs?” However, if the determinative and the noun are not next to each other in the sentence, an AN is not needed. For example, Zhè shi lǎoshīde zhuōzi, “This is the teacher’s desk.”

Lǎoshī can stand alone or be used with a surname as a title, as in “Wong Laoshi” (“Teacher Wong”). Titles generally come after the name in Chinese.

.ne is a particle indicating a question is a follow-up or a repetition of one just posed. The most common way it’s used is when one person encounters two or more people he says “Nǐ hǎo ma?” (“How are you?”), and after the other person answers, the first person asks something like “Tā ne?”(“And him/her?” or “How about him/her?”), or the first person could ask the third person “Nǐ ne?” (“And you?”).

Since you now know questions words like “who” and “what,” it bears repeating that in Chinese, questions follow Subject-Verb-Object order, unlike English. So to ask “Who is that?” it’s Něi ge rén shi shéi? (literally “That person is who?”), not Shéi shi něi ge rén? (literally “Who is that person?”)

Suírán is usually used in a construction where it paired with either dànshi or kěshi, both of which mean “but.” The construction usually goes like suírán (clause 1) dànshi (clause 2), which is not done in English. Example: suírán nǐ shi qíguài, kěshi nǐ hái shi wǒde péngyǒu, literally “Although you are strange, but you are still my friend.” HOWEVER, in Chinese you can omit either the suírán or the dànshi/ kěshi, which creates a construction identical to the one we have in English: “Although you are strange, you are still my friend” or “You are strange, but you are still my friend.” In practice you would probably want to write & speak your sentences like this. But you should realize that neither of these is the “true” form of the sentence, even though they’re both perfectly acceptable. Also note: suírán is technically an adverb, but it is one of a small number of adverbs that can come before or after the subject. (Remember on the least post when I said modifiers always come before the things they modify? This is the exception to that).

The word Hái “still” can be compounded with shi “is/are” to make Hái shi “still is/are.” You may notice this is a homonym with the word hái shi meaning “or” from the previous post. Just note that the two words are homonyms.

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